Elections in the Congo Not an End in Themselves
Elections in the Congo Not an End in Themselves
Op-Ed / Africa 5 minutes

Elections in the Congo Not an End in Themselves

If you want to know how Congolese feel about elections, ask Mama Lukaya. Squatting next to her fruit stand, where her five-year old daughter helps her sell bananas and mangos, she grimaces and tells me: “Votes? Can I eat votes? Will votes send my children to school?” Ideally, yes. Elections should set this country on the right track after nine years of war. The constitutional referendum that will conclude today is the first step in this process. Voters from around the country made their way – sometimes walking up to thirty kilometres –  to the 40,000 voting stations to check one of two boxes on the ballot. But are elections enough? This is an appropriate moment to reflect on the peace process in this war-torn country, where nine years of intermittent fighting have caused around 4 million deaths. When I ask Mama Lukaya who she will vote for in the elections, she sucks her teeth dismissively: “Mashua imeshatoboka – ukibadilisha wavuvi itasaidia na nini? Itazama tu.”

It is true that the system is not working too well. A transitional government came into being in June 2003 to bring an end to the fighting, but progress has been excruciatingly slow. In order to be as inclusive as possible, the peace deal distributed government posts between the six belligerent parties, civil society and the political opposition. The resulting bureaucracy is stifling. President Kabila is flanked by four vice-presidents, thirty-six ministries have been created, and six hundred seats in parliament have been handed out to members of the transition. Instead of working together to unify the country and improve the lot of the 60 million Congolese, for the most part these leaders have looked after their own interests.

A good example of the current mess is the integration of the army. When the transition began, the belligerents declared how many troops they had. Each faction proudly bloated its figures, making for a grand total of 360,000 fighters. International military experts estimate that the real number could be as low as a third of that. The racket was simple: with the false numbers the army chiefs could inflate the payrolls and pocket the excess money. Between three and five million dollars a month still go missing like this. In the meantime, the real soldiers on the ground are often unpaid and resort to harassing the local population to get by. In the squalid training camp I visited last month, soldiers’ children played in the mud next to the shooting range while officers tried to hitch a ride into town. In the surrounding village, the population complained that the soldiers who had been sent to protect them had already begun to set up roadblocks and harass them. The conditions are so sometimes so bad in these camps – where the new national army is supposed to be trained – that cholera and tuberculosis have broken out.

In the civilian administration things aren’t much better. A recent analysis of government expenditure by the Auditor General revealed that the president and the vice-presidents had drastically overspent their budgets, some using more than three times as much money as they were supposed to. The director of the state petroleum company gave himself a generous $67,000 vacation allowance, while the Minister of Energy helped himself to 9200 litres of petrol a month for personal use. While both of these culprits have been fired, no cases have been brought against them in court.

While this kind of corruption has helped buy peace and appease the former belligerents, this could all change after elections. After nine years of intermittent war, the country is rife with weapons and warlords. Those unhappy with the results may take up arms again, while it is hard to imagine that the new government will make much progress without a decent army and a functional administration. In short, we should not expect elections in themselves to bring about major changes in the way the Congo is ruled. As one of the vice-presidents told me in Kinshasa recently, “Elections are not like a baptism, there is no immediate conversion.”

The mood in the international community now is that little can be improved until a new government is in place. This reasoning is misguided. The peace deal granted the international community is a formal role in the transition; this leverage will disappear after the elections. It is essential that international and regional actors begin saying now what the new government must set as its priorities, so that their suggestions can influence the various election campaigns.

What is there to do? The most important thing is to create a functioning democracy, which goes far beyond just holding elections. As the most successful democracies on the continent have realized – South Africa, Botswana and Senegal among them – the government must be held accountable by a strong parliament, independent courts and a free press. As long as the abuses of ministers and members of parliament are not punished, the status quo will not change.

Secondly, more innovative ways must be found for managing natural resources. The Congo lies on some of the richest copper and gold lodes in the world. This wealth has until now served international mining companies and the local elites, but not the Congolese people. In the provincial capital of Mbuji-Mayi, where around $400 million in diamonds transit every year on their way to Antwerp and Tel Aviv, there is no electricity and people often walk long distances to look for water. From Iraq to Sierra Leone, countries have tried to make natural resources benefit the population by redirecting profits towards education and local business growth. Similar initiatives should be looked at for the Congo.

Lastly, a decent army must be trained and equipped. As the past months have shown, it is not just enough to train units and send them out into the field. Left to their own devices without pay, transport or supplies, these troops become more of the problem than the solution. The European Union has proposed a payroll mechanism that entrust the salaries to an autonomous structure with outside oversight. The project has been stalled by Kabila’s government for months now. It should be implemented so that foreign funds and trainers can begin a much larger and more extensive military aid program. In addition, a capable police force needs to be trained to keep law and order. At the moment the army often does this job, to the detriment of the population.

Mama Lukaya is right. The current government is flawed and no matter how much foreign aid you pour in, if the political system is not changed there will not be stability and prosperity in the Congo. Elections are a first step in changing the system. But, as extensive research has shown, now is also the time – two to three years after the end of fighting – when international attention often wanes and the peace falls apart. But we need to look beyond the polls to address the root causes of the war in the Congo. Only then can we keep the boat from sinking again.

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